Being the resident agony aunt may be in your nature, but how often do you heed your own words of wisdom? We’re betting that taking your own advice is harder than it looks…
We’ve all been that friend. The one who dishes out thoughtful advice to our pals with hearty abandon – the group’s unofficial counsellor.
But there’s often a yawning precipice between the quality of the advice we give to others and the actions we actually take in our own lives.
That’s one of the many paradoxes of being human – we can see the right course of action so clearly when it’s laid out before somebody else, but amid the fog of our own chaotic lives we either can’t make out (or refuse to accept) the often blindingly obvious answer.
Let’s take a common example. You’re in a relationship that feels tiresome and stale. You no longer want to be close to the person, you’ve lost interest in them, and if you’re honest with yourself, 80 per cent of the relationship’s sticking power lies with the guilt you feel about potentially hurting them.
If it were a friend coming to you with these feelings, it’s likely you’d tell them the obvious truth: it’s kinder to let go. But when it’s your life, and your relationship, it can be terrifying to admit to yourself that you’ve fallen out of love, let alone to your partner or the rest of the world.
Why can’t we take our own advice?
One part of the problem is that our clever, analytical little brains are particularly good at misdirection. When we don’t want to take an uncomfortable course of action, we often find ways to get out of it, whether conscious or subconscious.
But there are other fundamental roadblocks that can prevent us from distinguishing – or following – the right course of action.
Melissa Dahl, writing in New York Magazine, blames the phenomenon on something psychologists call ‘fundamental attribution error’. This is an inherent bias identified by social psychologists, that commonly causes us to blame other people’s behaviours on their character or flaws and our own behaviours on our situation or context.
It’s why we can be so quick to judge others for things we’ve in all likelihood done ourselves. But on the flip-side, it’s why it’s easier to believe that person X taking course of action Y will enjoy outcome Z, where in our own lives we might feel we have less control.
While this bias may be part of the problem, there are certainly contexts in which we might say the opposite is true.
Here’s another handy example. Let’s say you’ve made a mistake, and your self-esteem has taken a hit. You’re busy painstakingly pulling apart every facet of your being, tearing your ego to shreds, and a friend tells you to go easy on yourself, as you would them.
It can be easier to be gentle with another person when they make a mistake than it is when it’s you in the hot seat. Probably this is partly selfish: when you mess up in your own life, the stakes are higher. But it’s also because it’s easier to be objective when you have distance from the situation and are able to see that one mistake doesn’t define this lovable, complex, messy person before you.
So, how can we take our own advice, and more importantly, should we try?
A roadmap for taking your own advice
Get some distance
Gaining a healthy distance, like most good things, takes a bit of time. Sit on the issue and breathe before you make a decision. If it helps, try to imagine you’re advising someone else on the same issue.
Pay attention to emotion
Yes, emotions can be tricky things, and this advice might sound contradictory to gaining distance, but emotions can actually be reliable indicators of what we want – sometimes at least.
Researchers from the University of Chicago found that sadness is correlated with realism, and with taking time to consider options. Conversely, anger contributes to risk-taking, and impatient decision-making. So, pay attention to how you feel, but be smart about it.
Don’t fret the outcome
It may sound impossible but worrying over the upshot of any decision or action is a particularly unproductive pastime, because humans are notoriously bad at forecasting outcomes.
Studies have shown that we routinely expect the negative emotional repercussions of our choices to be more severe than they actually are – so don’t sweat it too much.
Should you take your own advice?
Whether or not you should take your own advice depends on where it comes from. There are honest and dishonest motivations behind our advice-giving tendencies, and it’s important to be aware of them.
For example, a 2018 study demonstrated that giving advice can actually enhance the giver’s sense of power over the other person, creating a subtle sense of superiority. Consider, then, whether the advice you give to others – and want to take yourself – is motivated by reason and care, or by this interpersonal power play.
Reaching a stage where you can honestly say that you’re advising yourself solely from a position of wanting to learn, grow and become your best self is the key. Once you’re there, following your own pearls of wisdom will become second nature.